Hunting, fishing numbers boomingSouth Dakota leading national upward trend.
By: Chris Huber, The Daily Republic
The cackle of a flushing rooster. The zing of a lunker fish taking a line. The chill of a north wind from a duck blind.
These are just a few of the experiences that are on the rise in the United States, according to survey results released recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The survey shows the number of Americans who hunt and fish is up significantly after being in decline for two decades. The survey, which is released every five years, found 11 percent more Americans fished in 2011 compared to 2006, and hunting was up 9 percent over the same period.
In South Dakota, the trend was more dramatic.
In 2011, 270,000 people hunted in South Dakota, compared to 171,000 in 2006 — an increase of 58 percent. Numbers were similar for fishing, with 135,000 people in 2006 and 268,000 in 2011, an increase of 99 percent.
Local and state officials seem at a loss to specifically explain the recent rise in numbers but have some general ideas.
“I think that is a reflection of opportunity that we have in the state,” said Tony Leif, director of the Wildlife Division for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. “In a more general sense, people want to get active and want to get outside to do something that can be economical and a lot of fun.”
Leif said with times being tough economically in the past few years, more people may be searching for less costly activities that remind them of their past.
“Certainly you can pay a lot of money on a hunting or fishing trip, but you can also do it relatively cheaply if you don’t have to travel very far, like is the case here in South Dakota,” Leif said.
Lure of pheasants
Hunters in South Dakota are likely to spend at least some of their time chasing the state bird, the Chinese ringneck pheasant, which is open to resident and nonresident hunting beginning today and continuing through Jan. 6.
South Dakota has more pheasants than any other state — an estimated 6 million this year — and attracts about 95,000 hunters from out of state each season.
Leif said people continue to pour into South Dakota to hunt pheasants because they are having a good time and enjoying successful hunts.
Harvest reports show each outof-state hunter bags an average of about nine birds over 4.5 days.
“I think the largest advertising tool we have in this state is the word of mouth of other hunters,” Leif said. “They come here, hunt, have a good time and then come back year after year — only next time they bring their friends.”
Game, Fish and Parks numbers reflect that. The number of nonresident pheasant hunters rose each year from 2002 to 2007. The numbers dropped off in 2008, then rose again in 2009 and 2010 before dropping off slightly last year.
Hunters also seem happy with the pheasant hunting in South Dakota. According to the GF&P harvest survey from last year, hunters had a satisfaction rating of 5.63 on a scale of one to seven. That number was only down 0.2 points from the year before, despite the pheasant population being down 42 percent.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey, it’s not just nonresidents who utilize South Dakota’s natural resources. The state had the highest percentage of hunters among its own people in 2011, at 21 percent. It also tied for fourth-highest participation in fishing, at 26 percent. The highest is Alaska at 40 percent.
South Dakota is no stranger to wide open spaces, which may be part of the reason it contains so many hunters and anglers. Even with the large increase in hunters in the last five years, if every one of them from 2011 was hunting on the same day on public land, each would get about 20 acres of that land to themselves.
“You can have all the game and fish populations that you want, but if you have no way to get to them or no way to utilize them, they are not worth a lot to you,” Leif said.
Two local sportsmen said their attachment to hunting and fishing is driven partly by a connection to those abundant outdoor spaces available in South Dakota.
“I love being set up in my blind at sunrise watching everything come to life and enjoying a cup of hot coffee from my thermos,” said Jake Heuston, an avid waterfowl hunter from Huron. “There is something about seeing a flock of geese pile into my decoys that never gets old.”
Jason Meyerink, a pheasant hunting guide for Cackling Creek Outfitters in Mitchell, was walking a section of public land with his dogs during the resident-only pheasant opener Monday south of Mitchell.
“I’ve shot enough birds that I don’t need to shoot anymore,” Meyerink said. “I like to go out on a nice day just to watch the dogs work.
“For me, it’s just fun to watch the training pay off and get compliments from other guys.”
The GF&P knows at least one other factor is vital to maintaining and building participation in hunting and fishing: getting kids excited about the outdoors.
“The key is to try and find fun things for them to do when they are at the age where they are figuring out what they like and what they don’t like,” Leif said.
Meyerink said he remembers tagging along with his father at the age of 7 on pheasant hunts. Now he takes his 12-year-old twin sons and 10-year-old daughter into the field.
“They get excited when we are out hunting and they see a bird go down,” Meyerink said. “I remember getting that same feeling as a kid. You were just excited to be out there and more excited when you got something. Taking them out with you gets them involved and makes them want to continue to do it.”
In 2008, the GF&P helped pass state legislation that allows mentored hunting in South Dakota. State residents ages 10 to 16 can hunt without a hunting license if they are accompanied by a mentor who is their parent or legal guardian. The mentor must have a license and cannot carry a firearm during the mentored hunt.
“If we can get them interested in hunting and fishing when they are young, there is a good chance they will continue those activities throughout their whole life, and that is exactly what we are looking for,” Leif said.
Another effort undertaken by the GF&P is youth hunting weekends. This program allows kids to hunt one weekend before the regular season opens for deer, pheasants and ducks.
Jake Heuston is the co-chairman of the Puddle Jumpers Chapter of Delta Waterfowl and helped organize a youth duck hunt this year. It was the ninth year the youth duck hunt was sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the second year Delta Waterfowl helped with it.
Thirty kids attended the two-day event. Aside from 12 kids shooting their first duck ever, they also learned waterfowl identification, how to set decoy spreads, gun safety and dog training basics.
“I think it is very important to get youth involved in the outdoors, because they are the future of hunting,” Heuston said.
“We need more hunters buying licenses, duck stamps and getting involved in groups like Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever to help save habitat and create opportunities for people to spend time in the outdoors.”
Heuston can’t remember a time when his father didn’t bring him along on hunting and fishing trips, and now with a 2-year-old son of his own, he has already begun introducing him to the outdoors.
“He has been able to tell the difference between a duck and a goose for quite a while now and is even starting to tell the difference between the mallard decoys and teal decoys,” he said.
Heuston’s son Jace even has his own duck call that he likes to practice using with this dad.
Though optimism is high for the future of hunting and fishing, Leif said there is also concern about the future.
Declining federal funding for wildlife programs coupled with shrinking Conservation Reserve Program acreage could threaten some game populations.
“High grain prices encourage more farmers to take out CRP acres and plant crops,” Leif said. “That could have a very detrimental effect on the game populations in this state, because those areas are great habitat for the animals.
“There will be a lot to learn in the next five years, but we are going to continue to try and make areas to hunt available to the public and continue to work hard to provide opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.”