The ten new hunters converged on the Division of Wildlife Urbana Game Farm on a sunny February Saturday morning. Waiting for them were three self-described “good ole’ boys” with nearly 100-years of rabbit hunting experience between them. Plus eight beagles who are veterans of many rabbit runs anxious to give Mr. Bunny another go today. Their mission was to participate in an introduction to rabbit hunting as part of the ODNR Division of Wildlife Learn to Hunt program.
I first heard of the program from an article appearing in the Division of Wildlife Wild Ohio magazine written by Chelsea Herrick, Wildlife Communications Specialist, who wrote, “Ohio is experimenting with ways to create and keep new hunters. Studies show that people who don’t have anyone to teach them to hunt or shoot, or who didn’t grow up in a hunting family have a difficult time getting started in the sport. Knowing this, the Ohio Division of Wildlife is crafting new approaches to creating a life-long hunter through a pilot program called “Learn to Hunt.”
It isn’t hard to understand the need for such a program. Hunting license sales are slipping nationwide. Many, who at one time hunted, have not been engaged in the activity. Others, who may want to try hunting but have no one to mentor them. Traditionally, the introduction of hunters would be done through family members and close friends. In many cases, as we’ve moved from a rural society, outdoor activities, such as hunting, get ignored. When a new generation wants to get back to hunting, the family knowledge has already been lost. Without a mentor, it is very difficult to start hunting and be successful. Without success, it is unlikely anyone will continue the effort.
The concept is a complete mentoring program beginning with the Ohio Hunter Education course. Generally small groups then go through another set of learning experiences. They are given information on how to shop for appropriate hunting apparel, trap shooting instruction and taken hunting. Chris Mangen, Division of Wildlife District 5 Outdoor Skills Specialist, explains, “We have the three R’s of recruitment, retention and reactivation.
This is a hands-on approach. You don’t know what type of hunting you might prefer until there is an opportunity to try it. The Division has done follow-up contact with the participants to see how many have purchased firearms, gone hunting on their own and other questions. Now we are offering the opportunity to do another type of hunt. We are trying to broaden their experience and keep them engaged.”
Mangen led the safety briefing reminding everyone of safe shooting zones, which can be rapidly changing depending on which direction the rabbit may run. He stressed that there would be no “jump shooting” of rabbits today. Most of the participants were concerned that they might accidently shoot a dog. The guides provided information about the beagles, how to hunt with them and why it wasn’t likely that the dogs would be that close to the rabbit. With expectations as bright as the February morning, the two groups headed their respective directions to see if the old game farm cover held some rabbits.
Justin Walters, Preble County, and Josh Kell, Jamestown, took their beagles and five hunters while the others were assigned to myself and Mangen. This provided two guides and four beagles for each group. My group hadn’t gone very far when the beagles suddenly broke into a concert of excited barking. Even though no one had seen the bunny, the beagle voices told me this rabbit was jumped and the chase was on. The hunters were delighted at the sounds and sights of the beagles.
Using dogs certainly increase the odds of jumping a rabbit and seeing it again to get a shot. The hunters anticipation soon settled as the mentors coached them on what the dogs are doing, where to stand and how to be ready. Several bunnies exploded from the cover and were past the hunters before they could react. However, it wasn’t long before they could more quickly spot the movements. Shots and some success soon followed. At the end of the day, the dogs were tired and the new hunters satisfied with their morning hunt.
Mike Thonnerieux, Beavercreek, summed up his morning, “It’s a great opportunity to be outside and something different for me. I hope to teach my children about this aspect of the outdoors. We’ve spent a lot of time fishing but never have hunted. I really enjoy watching the dogs work. When I went pheasant hunting, I got two shots but no pheasants. Today I got two shots and two rabbits. I can’t say that I really enjoyed one hunt more than the other. It really wasn’t about getting a rabbit. It’s about being outdoors, sharing the experience with others. It was a lot of fun.”
Caroline Watkins, from Columbus, adds, “I have done the Women in the Outdoors program for several years. I love archery, canoeing plus the handgun, rifle and shotgun classes. I thought this would be a fun opportunity to learn more. I did the dove hunt as my first time and this is my second hunt. It’s been great. I got a shot this morning but I was a little behind the rabbit. Someone else in our group did get the rabbit. Lucky them, they will have rabbit stew and I have to make hamburger for supper!”
Mangen concludes, “The feedback we are getting is very good. The participants are really enjoying the events. As a sportsmen, I know how much value they are getting. The places they are getting to hunt and the very knowledgeable volunteers who take them hunting make the program. It is wonderful to watch them experience nature and how happy being outdoors with friends really can be.”
I grew up enjoying the outdoors through traditional family mentors. I know what it means to enjoy the outdoors sharing that with family and friends. I simply can’t imagine my life without these things. Watching new folks enjoy hunting for the first time, adds to my sense of sharing and love of the outdoors. It took me back to family hunts in Kentucky when I was growing up.
I was blessed to share my Saturday morning and the beagles with this fine group of new hunters.
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