Who will be the beneficiaries of our rich bowhunting traditions?
Archery has a powerful appeal to any hunter who picks up a bow, but for youngsters the magic of an arrow's flight is especially spellbinding. Kyle Sinclair-Smith, 14, shoots 3-D, practices in his backyard and took this drop-tined mulie buck during the 2001 archery season in Alberta.
I was fourteen when I bought my first bow. I guess you could call it a long bow, because the one-piece, molded plastic limbs had no recurve to them. The ugly green stick required shooting arrows right off the self, just like the real long bows, and the arrows were bargain bin wood shafts covered with white or orange paint. I never bothered to check whether the arrows were straight; never occurred to me, but when I shot them I caused a lot of anxiety among the local chipmunk population.
Carp soon became my second favorite target. A local creek between two lakes provided the action in the spring when the lust-driven fish worked their way up the shallow waters to reach more temperate spawning grounds. A one-pound coffee can served as a reel, attached by bolting a metal corner brace to each end of the can and taping the braces beneath the handle of the bow. I did more to scare the carp than to thin their numbers, but every once in while an unlucky fish would be pulled, flopping, onto the banks of the creek.
We kids knew where all the good creeks and carp crossings were in those days. That was our full time job, looking for critters to chase, trap or run down. It seems improbable today, but packs of us kids used to actually run down rabbits until they were too tired to flee, then flush them out of bush into a waiting fishing net. Thank God they hadn't invented video games yet because instead of conditioning our lungs, legs and hunting instincts we would have been just another bunch of fat, bored little couch potatoes.
I was probably better with my slingshot, a "wrist rocket," in those days than I was with my bow. I could pick off pigeons at twenty and thirty yards on a good day with that sling, shooting without sights, instinctively. I still marvel at youngsters, who all seem to have the innate ability to pick up a slingshot or a small bow and within just a few shots start launching projectiles with surprising accuracy.
I got a chance to see this first hand again this year in August at the Great Outdoors Festival in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The event is a huge, hands-on game fair where patrons can participate in all kinds of outdoor activities, including archery, just for the price of admission. Over 4,000 youngsters visited the archery village again this year where volunteers led by Herb Schwartz walk them through the basics of handling a bow and arrow. The kids got to fling arrows at 3-D animal targets, many for the first time. Interacting with the kids, taking photos and offering encouragement, I watched youngsters just old enough to draw the string launch small arrows into the targets. Like young birds first taking to wing, kids have that amazing built-in mechanism that coordinates their hands and eyes. It's the same way that a baseball pitcher hits the strike zone or a hockey player finds the corner of the net.
BOWHUNTERS OR BRATS
So what's to become of the next generation? Will they be bowhunters or brats or something entirely outside the realm of outdoor pursuits?
As kids, when we were chasing critters, laying in the weeds, or just planning our next foray, one thing was certain: we didn't have time to get into the kinds of trouble that aimless youth can create. We were simply too busy, too excited about the possibilities of our next adventure to stray far off the beaten path. Not that we didn't get into spats of trouble from time to time, we did. We were kids, and kids by nature are somewhat mischievous at times. But we never developed the chronic problems that plague youngsters who have little to hope for, little to focus on.
WHERE WE'RE HEADED
To get a handle on formal programs for young archers, I talked to industry leaders Jay McAninch president of the Archery Manufacturers And Merchants Organization (AMO), an industry trade association that has been the oomph behind such ventures in the past.
What more positive encouragement does a kid need than to go one-on-one with nature in the sport of bowhunting? Dan Imler, 14, arrowed this big mule deer doe by making a successful stalk during the 2001 archery season. The deer was Dan's first with a bow!
McAninch couldn't name specific AMO programs because the organization has been restructuring itself over the past year and is focusing on the very ways it will be addressing such challenges in the future. "We're positioning staff and programming to pull the best people we have in our sport together in a well-coordinated effort," he told me.
McAninch had some thoughts to share on archery's future. "Today, hunter numbers are in decline," he explained. "And if you look at it as a percentage of population, it's really in decline. Bowhunting is hovering around three million, but things have been pretty static since 1994. Numbers of total archers are harder to guess. A lot who shoot aren't' involved in any structure, so there's no way to track their numbers.
"We live n a different time, a different world from the one where many of us grew up," McAninch continued. Today we need to focus more on the obstacles many face in pursuing our sport. Archery may appear costly, particularly among those where the sport is less well known. Perhaps it's not obvious where to go to get equipment or where to get lessons, and it may also be hard for new entrants to find peer groups in the sport. Then there's time, transportation and the approval of mom and dad.
"We can aim at every group of kids under 16 years old, but if we miss their parents, we're going to miss a generation. What about those 20 to 35 years old, those looking for active pursuits, and those with kids or about to have kids. We don't want to abandon our focus on youth, but let's balance our focus."
Tim Pool, executive director of the National Bowhunter Education Foundation. (NBEF) knows firsthand the recruitment challenges facing archery and bowhunting today. His NBEF cooperates with groups across the country that put bows in the hands of kids, from the Boy Scouts, church groups and national 4-H Shooting Sports, to the Becoming An Outdoors Woman programs and Ted Nugent's Camp For Kids.
"To me, recruitment should be the universal activity that all archery and bowhunting organizations should solidify behind," Pool told me. "All else will benefit in th
e long run."
Pool cited a 1999 study that placed bowhunting license sales at 3.2 million in the U.S., a figure that had been increasing but had leveled off in the most recent survey. The bowhunting enthusiasts had an average age of 37.2 years and 95.6 percent were males.
The NBEF is working on an international public relations campaign to seek out additional kids and parents using a number of bowhunting personalities to do radio and television spots with the message that archery is exciting and fun. "If we can get kids progressing in archery, there is a greater chance that they'll move into bowhunting," Pool said. "We're looking for major sponsors for the campaign."
The best efforts today seem to be at the grass roots levels. As an example, Primedia and Ducks Unlimited partner to produce The Great Outdoors Festival in both Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Memphis, Tennessee, each summer. As mentioned earlier, I've attended most of these festivals, and it truly is impressive to watch tens of thousands of people each day, including entire families (and the family dog in many cases) wander through the event and sample outdoor activities in a hands-on manner.
Among other attractions, the archery villages at the events remain highly popular. Besides the thousands of kids that get to pick up a bow, parents and kids get to watch archery demonstrations by the likes of trick shooter Byron Ferguson, former Olympic gold medalist Jay Barrs or competition shooter Terry Ragsdale. Giving people the opportunity to see, touch and experience the excitement of archery first hand is the best kind of marketing any sport could hope for.
This year's Great Outdoors Festivals are scheduled to be held in Memphis, May 31, June 1 and 2, and in Oshkosh August 16, 17 and 18. For more information about attending, exhibiting or becoming a sponsor of the shows call (323) 782-2618 or check out the Ducks Unlimited Great Outdoors Festival web site at www.DUGOF.com.
Certainly, all indications are that the bowhunting community cannot rest on its laurels when it comes to passing its traditions on to future generations. Granted, the sport and industry have come a long way in past decades, but with a leveling off in total numbers in recent years, archers and bowhunters need to find new ways to extend their reach to bring new enthusiasts into this great sport. Many agencies and individuals are already working in such a direction, but it will take a concerted effort from all to put the bow and arrow in the hands of those who will fill our shoes. With better equipment and expanded game populations, there's only room to grow for Generation Next.