Sept/Oct 2020Pathways to Success By David Lucas
For decades, the trend toward urban and suburban living in America has led to fewer people becoming involved in hunting via traditional paths. But the desire for the challenges and rewards of the hunt is still deeply ingrained in the human psyche and, as the old saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The literary legends of outdoor storytelling like Robert Ruark, Ernest Hemingway and Havilah Babcock, as well as more contemporary outdoor writers like Jim Casada and others, return frequently to the classic storyline of a young boy — it’s almost always a boy — being tutored in the craft of hunting by an older relative or other cherished mentor. Those old stories are classics for a reason; they were true! For decades — centuries really — that was reality, the essence of how hunting traditions were passed from generation to generation. And in rural areas where family-owned agricultural land and woods are still prevalent, those old stories still mirror reality for some.
But not for everyone. Times have changed, and so has our society, for better or worse. Even in South Carolina, the majority of people now are raised and live out their lives in largely urban or suburban settings, cut off from the rural traditions of the past and pursuing more technology-driven lifestyles, with nature and the outdoors often taking a back seat. It’s a concerning trend for a number of reasons, like the well-documented health benefits of getting out into nature. There’s also the fact that hunting, and the dollars spent by hunters, underwrite the vast majority of wildlife conservation in the United States. Declining participation in hunting and fishing could result in declining resources available to agencies like the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for research, management and habitat protection in the future.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that new traditions and new pathways into hunting and fishing are being created all the time. And in many cases, the results are turning that old familiar paradigm of "the old man and the boy" on its head. Have you heard the one, for instance, about the "young women, their mom and dad, and an amazing network of community support?"
Meet Patrick and Amy Bresnahan, the parents of two lively and adventurous teenagers, Christine and Catherine. Their hunting story starts about four years ago, with a mud pit.
That’s when Christine, then around 10 years old, was looking for a summer camp. An online video for the S.C. Waterfowl Association’s "Camp Woodie" caught her eye. At one point the video showed a bunch of kids playing in a mud pit, and Christine thought that really looked like fun. That the Camp Woodie program included instruction in gun safety and rifle-shooting was an unexpected bonus, but Christine immediately took a shine to it. Around the same time, she’d also started watching the Netflix hunting/cooking show Meat Eater. "That show really sparked my interest," said Christine.
Christine met the camp's age requirement for participating in an approved Hunter Education class and was able to learn to shoot rifles and shotguns. "They do clays, they do rifles, and bows," said Christine. "They do a bunch of, like, hunting stuff, and so it was really interesting. I was just old enough, because my birthday was in the summer, I was old enough to go ahead and take the hunter education class."
Back home, the hunting bug had bitten her hard. She began watching more hunting shows on cable television and bugging her parents for shooting instruction. Neither Patrick nor his wife, Amy, had ever been hunting though — not even once. It just wasn't a part of their upbringing. They were happy to support anything that sparked their girls’ interests, but basically, they were clueless, laughed Patrick with a smile. It was hard to know where to get started. Amy had some family in Edgefield county who were hunters — the girl's cousins — but that was about it. The Bresnahans live in Forest Acres, one of Columbia’s great suburban neighborhoods — a wonderful place to live and raise a family, but not exactly a hotbed of hunting activity. The family SUVs parked in the driveways of this quiet, tree-lined neighborhood are more likely to be loaded up with golf, tennis or soccer gear than hunting equipment. Patrick and Amy decided they'd just have to wing it.
Patrick visited a big-box store and purchased Christine a youth rifle and some other gear. But that was just the first step. "The number one thing," he said, "was for her to learn how to shoot safely. I’d never owned a long gun until we bought her that first rifle . . . so we had no real background."
With both girls now expressing an interest in shooting and hunting, Patrick began looking for a place they could learn to shoot the rifle.
"We wanted to encourage them [to follow their interests] so the first thing was for them to learn the basics and safety of shooting," he said. "Christine had taken Hunters Ed at camp, so that was helpful, but we needed a place to shoot, and we really lucked out there."
Sandhills Shooting Range, a female-owned and operated business, had opened the year before near Columbia. One of the owners showed a lot of interest in helping Christine (and the rest of the family) get comfortable with shooting her new Savage Youth model .243 in bright pink, recalled Patrick. Then there was "Gunny," AKA Bob Colter, a retired marine and then a range officer at Sandhills. Gunny quickly took an interest and began coaching the girls (and mom and dad) in the finer points of shooting.
"Gunny would kind of watch the girls, and he just kind of took them under his wing and started coaching them,” said Patrick. “They are very good out there at offering, if they see you need some help," added Amy. “They really kind of embraced our family.”
That kind of camaraderie and willingness to help would turn out to be something the Bresnahans would encounter all along their hunting journey.
People like Ray Smith, an active QDMA member who’s also a certified hunter education instructor for the SCDNR and a work colleague of Patrick’s. Outreach, Education and Recruitment are an important part of the QDMA mission and philosophy, and when Patrick mentioned his daughters’ newfound interests, Smith's ears perked up immediately.
It’s a part of what the organization’s members call "hunting heritage," and bringing in new hunters is a major goal for QDMA. Smith has also been teaching Hunter Education classes in the Columbia area since 2012 as a volunteer with the SCDNR with two partners, Robert Young and Maurice Smith. All three men are avid hunters and shooters, and they try to put as much into the class as they can.
That was for sure the experience that (relatively) new hunter Lindsay Sellers had when she took the class with Smith. Sellers lives in Atlanta now, but she used to work as an administrative assistant in the office of Sporting Classics magazine. She’d never hunted before, but when the opportunity presented itself to participate in a hunt at the world famous Cowden Plantation (home of Jarrett Custom rifles), she did, successfully harvesting a buck on her first outing in 2017 (with an Apprentice License). “I was hooked, said Sellers. “I just really got the itch for it then.”
Kind of like the Bresnahans, it was a totally new world for her — but one where, as she discovered, numerous people she met along the way would be tremendously helpful. Sellers signed up for Hunter Education to complete the requirement for her regular Statewide Hunting License and was lucky enough to have class with Ray Smith and his partners.
“Those three guys, you can just tell there’s a camaraderie and a bond between them, and their purpose is to share that bond with others through their class,” said Sellers. “They really teach the importance of getting those basics down so the people that attend the class can be successful once they get out on their own. I didn’t grow up in a house with a shotgun sitting in the corner; I wasn’t around that, so I really had to get acclimated to it. In the class, they really want to make sure you understand what you’re doing so that when you get out into the field you’re successful and you’re doing it the right way.”
Sellers’ first full season of hunting was in 2018, and more success in hunting has followed.
"I’ve gotten my feet wet, to say the least," said Sellers. "I've just loved every bit of it. It's like therapy, but in our household, it's also kind of an obsession."
Not long after that first hunt, Sellers met and fell in love with an avid big game hunter and part-time professional guide at a trade show. The couple live in Atlanta now, and their life together "pretty much revolves around hunting and the outdoor industry," said Sellers. "Our first date was a bear hunt."
The Bresnahan family has also been enjoying some success in the field. Christine's first harvest came in 2018 when a classmate's father agreed to take her and Patrick out on their first deer hunt at the family farm in Bishopville. The two of them sat together in a ground blind overlooking a field — a prime spot. They watched and waited. First some turkeys came out, then two small bucks, and Christine made a successful sixty-five-yard shot. A trip to the processor that evening was an education in that essential part of the hunt. Preparing the harvested game for use by the family is a central part of their hunting experience, said Christine. "Some of our friends and family did deer hunting, so I had tried that before [venison], and it was really good. I really like deer sausage."
A few more trips for deer and turkey with cousins on Amy's side of the family ensued, and some other friends offered invites, but it was scattered.
"Finding a place that we could go [consistently] was a challenge," said Patrick. "Access to land it seems like, is the most difficult thing. So, we didn’t have too much success in that first full year, because we just didn’t have much access."
The 2019 season brought two major milestones: At an SCDNR-sponsored youth hunt at Belfast WMA, Patrick and Christine met SCDNR Wildlife Technician Adam Rex who has a daughter about Christine’s age. The two struck up a friendship, which resulted in an invite to hunt with them the next day, where Patrick got his first deer. Also in 2019, the family found a great situation that would allow them to spend more time in the field together in a spot close to home. Patrick mentioned the family’s newfound interest in hunting to dog kennel owner Glenn Niske, who they’ve known for years, and Niske told him he owned seventy-five acres of family land near Columbia. The land had deer and turkey on it — even a hunting stand or two — but it wasn’t being actively managed or hunted very frequently. A bargain was struck, and in exchange for some sweat equity planting food plots, clearing lanes and putting up trail cameras, the Bresnahans finally had a regular place to hunt as a family. Christine took a doe there in 2019, and the family continues to work with Niske on the property, refining their management plans and experimenting with new seeds and places for food plots. It's been a win-win for the landowner and the family.
"This whole land management thing has really taken off with Glenn," said Patrick. "I go out there and check the cameras and change the SD cards and then upload them to the Cloud on Google. He [Niske] can look through the images and see the deer coming onto the property, which he really enjoys. We’re doing it together — all of us. As we switch game-cam cards out, we are all learning as we watch pregnant does, newborns, and bucks actually growing their antlers. We have also watched as a coyote tracked a deer as well as a boss gobbler wander through. It’s really turned into a family project for us."
It's not your grandfather’s, or even your father’s hunting story. Being fortunate enough to be able to hang onto the old traditions, or a piece of family land, is a wonderful thing, like a cherished old rifle passed on to a younger hunter. These are different times, but fortunately for new hunters like the Bresnahans and Lindsay Sellers, there are plenty of people and programs ready to help them find their way.
"There’s no question, I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life," said Christine. And that's a mindset that will help ensure that wildlife and natural resources conservation and outdoor traditions in South Carolina will continue to prosper in this new century.
David Lucas, a former editor of South Carolina Wildlife, now serves as an SCDNR media and outreach representative. Follow his scnaturalresourcesblog.com to read outdoor adventures and news updates.