Voice of Leadership: Understanding the New Hunter Experience

Voice of Leadership: Understanding the New Hunter Experience

“Becoming a new hunter is so complex.”

“There is so much to learn and so much to mess up.”

“The sheer number of things to remember is mind boggling.”

These are thoughts I had while taking my hunter education course with my daughter some seven years ago. We both were in over our heads for the first few lessons, but she had a big advantage: She was 12 and I was in my mid-30s. I’d had at least half of a lifetime without a hunter’s perspective and learning new things can be hard to incorporate into an already-established worldview. Lifelong hunters sometimes forget about this and seem bewildered that someone else’s experiences have been so different. I feel like I have an advantage, having seen both sides authentically.

The rules, tips and recommendations for hunting the “right way” could go on and on. Hunter education is a great resource, especially for someone who wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up with these principles talked about frequently. But hunter education is only the tip of the iceberg. Once we get some basics mastered, we are encouraged to pick up GPS apps, Kestrel wind-reading devices and ballistic calculators. We are thrust into deciding what grain weight is best for what animal and at what distance. And if you have a husband like mine, Adam Weatherby isn’t much for truck hunting. It’s all about backcountry survivalism revolving around a hunt. Knowing how to do that successfully is even more daunting. For those like me, the learning curve is incredibly steep. It is no wonder that Mark Duda, executive director of the survey research firm Responsive Management, wrote, “It takes a hunter to make a hunter,” in the book “How to Talk about Hunting: Research-Based Communication Strategies,” that he wrote for the NRA in 2020. I recently asked Adam if he knew anyone who was an accomplished hunter but who did so independently or was self-taught. He couldn’t recall even one person, admitting it was possible but not probable.

I have spent the last six years trying to get all the rules, tips and recommendations to line up. It takes significant investment, most definitely more than for any other adult hobby I have had. The only close correlation to the amount of personal dedication hunting has required is my experience as a college athlete. I spent years on the volleyball court and invested considerable time. I practiced for hours a day throughout high school and college and developed the right mindset for the sport, which can be the hardest part. However, the conditions were more controlled and the equipment more limited: court, net, ball and opponent. Hunting has many more variables: temperature, wind, elevation, rifle, scope, ammunition, orienteering, terrain, animal behavior, game calls, shooting skill and physical fitness, to name a few. Most likely, if I could afford to spend three hours a day on my hunting game it would be easier. Nevertheless, I know that hunting is more than a sport or a hobby. It is truly a lifestyle decision to be a hunter. It is something that affects how I spend my time and money; it affects what I value, and it affects the way I think of the world and wildlife around me. Certainly, attempting to make the endless hunting standards into habits is no small task. It doesn't come naturally without plenty of practice but hunting season doesn’t allow us to be in the field 365 days a year like a volleyball court does. It is a lifestyle that is much more conducive to a long-term commitment. I think of hunting as an apprenticeship where skills are gathered over a long period of time with repetition and correction from a loving mentor, but this can be difficult if that mentor isn’t related to the new hunter. I’ve been fortunate to have that in my husband, Adam.

Some hunts have been easily rewarding for me and others terribly disappointing. My first year of hunting in 2016, everything seemed to go my way, but not because I had mastered any of the necessary skills. I look back and think God wanted me to have some early success so I wouldn’t quit. He had a plan for what my future would be. That season makes me smile every time I recall it. My third season was much more challenging and something I had to work through. I didn’t shoot as well that year and I made a lot of mistakes, mostly because I didn’t practice, research and plan. I didn't know my equipment well and I paid for it. I was counting on luck instead of proper preparation. As a college athlete, I would never have thought about going up against an opponent if I hadn’t watched films or taken the time to practice. My third hunting season pointed out my error. As a rookie hunter, it is very easy to ask yourself what in the world am I doing? It is also easy to quit because hunting can be challenging. If it weren’t for my patient husband who has continually valued the experience of sharing this together, I would have been a dropout for sure. He has been so patient with me, explaining things again and again that seem second nature to him. These types of mentors are irreplaceable in the life of a new hunter. They can be the “make or break” for the national R3 (recruit, retain, reactivate) movement.

If I could choose a single acquired skill that makes one a good hunter it might be prudence: the ability to know what the most important thing at that very moment is and having the skills, ability and perspective to either act or to wait in stillness. I have watched many senior hunters and it is a wonder to observe their decision making and intuition come alive in the hunt. The process is fascinating and motivational. I must keep reminding myself it is a process, something I will never perfect but always enjoy if I can actively focus on the right things and not just the outcome. It is important to me to have this open perspective. No matter how my most recent hunt turns out, I can’t forget the real reasons behind it all. Duda shares plenty of data on the motivations concerning why people hunt, but for me, I feel a pride in my multifaceted self-sufficiency and that is what keeps me coming back. At the top of the list is the meat I harvest and knowing the care I took to get it from the field to my table. I smile remembering the sights and sounds as I unwrap butcher paper and know that someone will ask me what animal this is. We retell the stories and share the pictures as we eat the greatest trophy of any animal. Other unspoken aspects richly enhance the experience as well—the awe of creation and being in all its elements is something I cannot eliminate from any hunt memory. And the quietest of quiets, the depths of which my soul had never experienced and now yearns for. In 2020, Frances Stead Sellers, senior writer at The Washington Post, pointed out a longtime hiking enthusiast who said, “You don’t see a lot when you are moving ... when you are sitting still, you see a lot and it’s very exciting.” I would wholeheartedly agree and even though I love hiking, doing it with a firearm and at a slower speed only adds to the experience of it.

Even though all those wonderful aspects of being a new hunter could be enough to solidify my engagement in the hunting lifestyle, I think for years I have been missing something very crucial to make the story balanced and more meaningful. An often-forgotten aspect of being a new hunter is being an ambassador for conservation. Much like hunting skills, there is so much to learn and so much to mess up on. Poor hunter behavior can easily be perceived as unethical (Duda, 2020, p. 46). Even misspoken commentary about a “trophy” animal on a social media post can be a source of confusion or frustration about hunting motivations. I feel that how new hunters present their hunting journey is just as important as the list of hunting rules taught in hunter education.

Likely, I will rub shoulders with people who don't understand my motivation to hunt or those opposed to this new "hobby." My story has many risks, unintended consequences that could be detrimental to the ongoing experience that we enjoy. In the 2021 article, "Decline in Hunting Threatens Conservation Funding," Andrew Moore tracks how fewer Americans are taking up hunting ever year, a trend that has wildlife agencies across the country looking for new ways to fund conservation. He quotes Lincoln Larson professor of parks, recreation and tourism at NC State's College of Natural Resource, who says, "It's just a lifestyle that's fallen out of vogue."

If that statement is at all true, then a lot is at stake in how we tell these stories and how we share our experiences. Prudence in this aspect of being a hunter is a similar necessity: the ability to know what the most important thing is at that very moment and having the skills, and perspective to either act or wait in stillness. Some lifelong hunters are great examples in representing fellow hunters and others, not so much. The images and stories can be distasteful and embarrassing if we really are mindful of our true responsibility to accurately communicate the value of the hunting community. And let’s admit, some would be wise to wait in stillness as opposed to blowing the stalk. Too much is at stake to do it carelessly. My question is: Are existing hunters teaching new hunters how to be excellent ambassadors for conservation and not just fueling the self-serving parts of hunting?

I have gained this perspective from a multitude of people and experiences and only after actively researching this for myself. First, I am proud to be self-sufficient and I value my tie to survivalism. The harvest of meat, the preparation for the journey, the hard work to endure, the courage to take one more step and the rawness of nature are now part of how I choose to live. My daily life isn’t that exciting, but there are days, specifically in the fall, where I willingly engage in the lifestyle of self-sufficiency, and it makes me feel the depth of the human experience. The experience of being a hunter is one that I am very proud of and one that I try to convey to people around me—hunters and non-hunters alike.

Secondly, I am proud to be an active conservationist. I have grown to see hunting as more than a selfish act, but simultaneously as a benefit to wildlife (Duda, 2020, p. 61.) I remind myself of this every time I purchase a tag, invest in more boxes of ammunition and support local and national conservation groups and every time our family company writes a check for excise tax. I am confident that I am extending wildlife and habitat management for those generations after me. Duda writes, “In general, Americans are more likely to support ecological reasons for hunting than human centered reasons like recreation” (p. 60). What a gift I can give, what an investment I can make and what a message I can tell. I can spend my dollars for the personal experience, which I do, but I choose to not forget about spending my dollars for the purposeful charity for wildlife, for habitat and for others to enjoy in the future what I have been blessed with now. And it’s not just future hunters that I am looking out for as non-hunters also enjoy reestablished habitat and increased animal population health because hunters are engaged in hunting. Now more than ever, hunting is being used for the good of others. In my state of Wyoming, for example, Food from the Field is a statewide initiative to battle childhood hunger. As covered by the NRA Hunters Leadership Forum website, hunters and game processors are working together to provide healthy food for people in need of quality meat. Taking pride in these aspects of hunting and others are crucial in communicating our many positive motivations. This is key for the continuation of the hunting lifestyle as we know it.

Clearly, the decline of the number of hunters is a growing concern. It puts an even greater responsibility on our hunting community to be positive ambassadors. Surprisingly, the Washington Post article previously mentioned calls this a “crisis” for the nation’s many endangered species. Sellers says that “key programs ... are woefully underfunded” and both hunted and non-hunted species are suffering from the decline in hunting across the nation. The author explains that environmentalists and hunters have worked together in Washington to do two things: explore new funding sources and recruit new hunters. The decline is certainly not good news; however, it is positive that there is some common ground amidst the backlash that so easily divides people’s opinions. Engaging and building upon such messages is something I tend to focus on with people who don’t have my same perspective. So far, it has yielded positive results. Ensuring healthy wildlife populations is a common goal so let’s unite on it with positive messages.

As explained by Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand, communications experts at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, in their 2018 article, “The Science of What Makes People Care,” “Social service organizations collectively spend millions of dollars each year on communications that focus on informing people. Sadly, these kinds of efforts ignore the scientific principles of what motivates engagement, belief and behavior change.” In noting the principles that best help organizations to connect their work to what people care about most, they specifically encourage people to use positive emotions, especially pride. “Researchers have found that people anticipating feeling pride in helping the environment were more likely to take positive action than those anticipating guilt for having failed to do so,” they note. Transferring this kind of positive messaging to our fellow hunters, especially new hunters, can be impactful.

I feel a sense of pride that I am part of the solution. I am making a difference. I can say with confidence that I am a new hunter who is deeply invested in the future of our nation’s wildlife stability. That makes me proud, and I think it’s an integral part of the new hunter experience that has been overlooked. If we, as new hunters, can have a two-prong perspective, we will be just what the hunting community has been praying for. We will be fully invested in our own self-sufficiency: obtaining the survivalism skills needed to prepare for an unknown journey, harvesting and controlling the aspects of our own organic meat, finding our way through the rugged wilderness, and experiencing the quietness that our ancestors once found common. We also will be fully invested in the ecology of our planet, in managing healthy populations of hunted and non-hunted species, in caring for habitat, in funding conservation programs and management areas specifically set aside for wildlife and species recovery and for recruiting new hunters to continue the story. New hunters, thoughtful and engaged, will increase in number because of the pride in contributing to so many aspects of hunting and the positivity and prudence we use to communicate that pride.

So where does that leave me now? Clearly, without an invitation and support from others, it is unlikely I'd be a hunter today. Knowing this, I am thrilled to help others learn about hunting by walking through the hunting process with people. I ask those established hunters reading this article to consider inviting someone to experience and learn from you this season. Giving back is necessary for the future.

About the Author
Brenda Weatherby is the Director of People and Culture for the firearm and ammunition company Weatherby, Inc., in Sheridan, Wyo. She was recently named to the national Voice of Leadership Panel, comprised of hunting and outdoor industry experts who volunteer to share their experience and contribute their voices on key hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire and educate participants within the hunting community.

About the 2021-2022 Voice of Leadership Panel
Facilitated by The Hunting Wire and the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum, the Voice of Leadership Panel is an appointed group of outdoor industry leaders. Panelists for 2021-2022 include:

Cyrus Baird: Senior Director of Government Affairs, Delta Waterfowl
Karen Butler: Founder/President, SLG2, INC DBA: Shoot Like A Girl
Haley Fitzgerald: Conservation leader and hunting enthusiast
Eric Morris: Producer and Host, N.onT.ypical Outdoorsman TV
Ken Perrotte: President of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoors Writers
Brenda Weatherby: Director of People and Culture, Weatherby, Inc.