Sustaining hunting and fishing tradition

By Lisa Huynh Daily Press Writer

MONTROSE — Part of making a living in Mel Jensen's youth meant going out and shooting meat in the fall to have for the winter. The memory he recalled most children wouldn't recognize today.

Jensen's a great-grandfather now, a retiree and hunting education instructor. He learned to hunt at 13 and learned to fish at an even younger age.

"The kids growing up they have different forms of entertainment, they watch television," said Jensen, a Montrose Rod and Gun Club member. "Now they didn't have television when I was a kid. Maybe I got to see a movie Saturday afternoon if I had a nickel to do it."

Jensen and other lifelong sportsmen remember childhoods spent out in nature, learning out of necessity and accessibility to read the land and its animals. Many lived near wild spaces and grew up learning from family how to pursue, capture and shoot prey.

Increasing urbanization and fewer traditional family structures are some factors possibly contributing to a decline in the number children introduced to hunting and fishing.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report released in 2007 found nationwide about 10 percent fewer 6 to 19 year-olds living at home had ever fished in 2005 compared to those who had ever fished in 1990. The percent of 13- to 19-year olds who had ever hunted fell from 16 percent in 1990 to 11 percent in 2005. Declines appeared to be both in fewer participants and fewer staying engaged throughout their lifetimes.

What is viewed as promising news, however, is the rise of participation in other wildlife activities. Thirty-eight percent of Americans either hunt, fish or observe wildlife.

"It seems that people are still getting outside and recreating and enjoying the outdoors, they're just doing it with different activities," said Barb Perkins, USFWS spokesperson. "It's just maybe a sign of our times that things are changing a little bit."

A tradition

The amount of dedication hunters and anglers devote to their sports is in many respects the ultimate in wildlife interaction. Beside the fact that these two types of activities sustain the state's conservation efforts through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses (see "The Hunter-Angler Dollar"), these sportsmen spend much of their time outside observing animal behavior.

Come hunting season, families like the Vergaminis set up camp well before the start of the season. They wake before the sun, spend all day on foot and return to camp at sundown. Sometimes excitement impedes sleep. The family's interest is just as much about intrigue as it is about gain — behavioral insight is key in catching game.

"If you're out there, you see how (the animals) live, you see their lifestyle, you see the moms and the babies and how they react," said lifelong hunter Christine Gibson, whose parents met while hunting. "You see (the animals') circle of life. It's really amazing that that goes on and you don't ever know about it and you don't see it."

The decline in youth introductions to hunting and fishing surprises few; Gibson's father Dave Vergamini, a hunter safety educator and Montrose Rod and Gun Club member, said the drop in youth participation is part of the norm. Still, his family is sad knowing fewer kids are getting outdoors.

"If you don't get to the outdoors, you just don't appreciate it,"said Kathy Vergamini. "Everyone's 'going green' but it seems to be a fad. If you don't live it, you don't really understand what all goes along with it."

Beyond the tangible or measurable values of hunting and fishing is something perhaps words can't express. The activities often bond generations of families like the Vergaminis.

"I don't think we chose (the lifestyle). It's just always been there and we've just always done it," said Kathy. "I grew up that way. I got lucky enough to marry someone that enjoys it and passed it onto to our kids."

When asked the value of activities to him, Dave Vergamini said simply, "I don't know, you just have to be out there to experience it." While Dave recognizes the differences between today's and yesterday's youth, he suspects it's not so much the number of participants that has changed but the society around the culture. Montrose used to be filled with banners reading, "Welcome Hunters." Not so much anymore.

Said Dave, "It used to be the big talk of the town, 'are you going hunting?, when are you going?'"

Exceptions to the decline

Many local sportsmen believe Colorado, with its relative abundance of public lands and rural communities, is not experiencing the decline in participation happening in other states. More than one-third of Colorado's land area is owned by the public and is available for public use, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The USFWS survey showed hunting retention rate in urban areas declined between 1995 to 2005, from 43 to 35 percent, in comparison to a decline in rural areas from 59 to 53 percent.

Data on hunting and fishing license sales in Colorado suggest participation isn't what it used to be, but also shows fluctuations from year to year with no sharp changes. In 1985, the DOW reported 1,031,061 individual hunting and fishing license buyers; that number decreased to 961,043 by 2006. Part of the reason the number of license buyers is sustained is the sale of over-the-counter bull elk tags, which is a huge draw because hunters know they can come to Colorado and hunt elk, said Division of Wildlife Public Information Specialist for the Southwest Region Joe Lewandowski.

Participants in local fly fishing and casting clinics have also increased significantly in the last two years, said Gunnison Gorge Anglers President Marshall Pendergrass. However — as the USFWS national survey also found — most participants are middle-aged and retired, he said. Based on the survey, at least a third of both first time anglers and hunters were over 20 years old.

"People are busy and they're finding it's an easy way to get away and spend some time," said Pendergrass. "It's not as expensive as skiing and things like that. (Fishing) is not limited to just a certain time of year and most people enjoy the mountains; they enjoy the rivers, hiking and wildlife."

In an effort to foster more youth participation in hunting and fishing, federal, state and local non-profit groups are reaching kids through programs such as DOW's Youth Hunt, GGA's flyfishing clinics and workshops and Trout Unlimited's Trout in the Classroom.

Contact Lisa Huynh via email at